Politics & Government

In an era of rising college costs, USC’s law school is slashing tuition significantly

Students at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law are among the biggest winners of the General Assembly’s focus on education this year.

Tuition for in-state students will be $5,100 lower next year — a 17.3% cut — after S.C. lawmakers injected the state’s only public law school with more cash to make its sticker price competitive with rivals in neighboring states.

“We’ve been losing some very good students to out-of-state laws schools because of the cost,” USC School of Law Dean Robert Wilcox told The State Friday. “When you go to school out of state, the odds increase dramatically that you will stay out of state for your career. This will keep more good students in South Carolina.”

Cutting tuition is extremely uncommon in higher education, usually a last resort for schools that need to boost enrollment to survive.

The cut is possible this year because the General Assembly decided this spring to increase its funding of public colleges that have been neglected by the state since the Great Recession.

As a result, those schools are raising tuition only modestly next year. But nowhere is the effect more noticeable than USC’s law school, the only one so far to lower tuition for in-state students.

The change was sorely needed. USC law students from South Carolina paid $29,608 in tuition last year, more than their counterparts at the University of Georgia School of Law — $17,604 — or the University of North Carolina School of Law — $24,172.

The General Assembly’s underfunding of higher education over the past decade had a serious impact on a school with a limited enrollment — currently 630 students, Wilcox said.

Those students were further burdened because USC borrowed roughly $42 million for the law school’s new, $80 million building that opened to great fanfare in June 2017, costs that are being passed down to students through tuition.

The new building was expected to help USC recruit talented students and improve on its No. 88 position in the U.S. News and World Report’s national rankings. But the law school’s high tuition has undercut that mission.

Since the new building opened, the law school has slipped to No. 91, now in a nine-way tie with Florida International University, Marquette University, Michigan State University, Syracuse University, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the University of New Mexico and Wayne State University.

“The building is absolutely a recruitment factor,” said Wilcox, the school’s dean since 2011. “But at the end of the day, students are looking at ranking and cost.”

Now, it would be cheaper for a S.C. student to attend Georgia’s law school — paying one year of expensive out-of-state tuition and then two years of in-state tuition after becoming a Georgia resident — than to stay home and attend USC’s law school.

Wilcox made that point while speaking to a group of lawyers in Florence earlier this spring. Luckily for him, the crowd included House budget committee chairman Murrell Smith.

The Sumter Republican graduated USC’s law school in 1993, back when tuition was less than $2,000 a semester.

“I literally could (work as a law) clerk during the school year and summer and pay my law school tuition,” Smith said. “I know those days are gone, but ... we’re not doing our young people any favors by leaving them with enormous debt.”

Under Smith’s direction, S.C. lawmakers increased the state’s spending on the University of South Carolina by about $8 million this year, with an understanding that USC leaders would direct $1.9 million of it specifically to lower tuition at the law school where a number of state lawmakers got their degrees.

The new money brings USC’s in-state tuition in line with UNC, but still not as low as Georgia. Wilcox said he is most excited for current students who recently were notified their tuition bill would drop next year.

“It’s probably the best news that a couple hundred law students have received in some time,” Wilcox said.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
  Comments